"I want to tell you something I’m not proud of," began Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his National Press Club speech Wednesday.
For years, many educators and community leaders have tried to bring attention to the school-to-prison pipeline: the all-too-common path leading from high school directly to jail, causing many to miss opportunities for higher education or employment – especially young men of color.
One cause, according to Secretary Duncan: schools themselves.
"Those calls to the police, to put kids in jail? We were making them," he told a sold-out audience of journalists, teachers, and education experts. A quarter of a million students are referred to law enforcement each year, often young men of color or children with disabilities.
"The majority of the arrests were occurring during the school day, in our school buildings, mostly for nonviolent misdemeanors," said Duncan, as urban administrations increasingly rely on police to help patrol the hallways.
Even just one or two such incidents can handicap a child’s future, Duncan said, noting that black men between 20 and 24 without a high school diploma are more likely imprisoned than employed. Today, only one-fifth of black men in America will receive a college education, but one-third are predicted to serve time.
"Facing the facts on incarceration leaves us with no choice. We, as a country, must do more to change the odds," he pledged, saying America must "make opportunity real" for its poorest kids.
Duncan outlined a plan to dismantle the pipeline over several years by jailing fewer nonviolent offenders, a move he argued would save up to $15 billion: money to be invested in teacher leadership and pay, helping to turn around abysmal retention rates for US schools.
Over 40 percent of new teachers leave the classroom in less than five years, according to the National Education Association, a revolving door that costs the country up to $2.2 billion each year, while reducing students’ chances of learning from an experienced educator.
Duncan proposed that the $15 billion be allocated to raise teacher salaries by up to 50 percent in states’ most under-resourced schools, while also creating five mentor teacher positions at each struggling school.
To forestall criticisms that the plan is soft on crime, he emphasized that the plan provides alternatives for only nonviolent offenders, and will prevent more criminality down the road.
After laying out financial arguments, Duncan stressed that ending the pipeline requires some of "the hardest conversations we can have" about the implicit racial biases that lead teachers to call the police instead of a guidance counselor.
"A child holds a clock. And we see a bomb," he said, a reference to Ahmed Mohamed, whom President Obama has invited to the White House.
Tackling the school-to-prison pipeline, and creating truly equal opportunities for all students, is tightly tied to social justice, Duncan argued, frequently evoking recent police brutality and racial discrimination in cities like Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore, Md.
Understanding and overcoming individual biases will "help all children reach their full potential," he emphasized.
The plan is a model, not a mandate. The Department of Education cannot require nationwide changes to discipline or teacher pay, and Congress is already embroiled in debates over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The reauthorization will likely roll back what critics call the Obama administration’s federal overreach in K-12 education.